"Fire in the hole," Matt Stevens yelled Thursday morning, wearing protective gloves as he lit a firecracker attached to a rubber hand in a Cockeysville field.
Smoke wafted lazily in a slight breeze and two butterflies fluttered in the bright sun until an big explosion hurled the hand into the tall grass 20 feet behind the field.
The hand was a prop, representing a human hand, and Stevens, a deputy state fire marshal and bomb technician in Salisbury, was among fire officials from around Maryland who attended a press conference to warn the public, in advance of July 4, about the dangers of fireworks.
The purpose of the news conference, held at Baltimore County's Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park, was to "decrease the likelihood of injuries from fireworks," said State Fire Marshal William Bernard, whose office sponsors the news conference and demonstration annually.
Photographers snapped nonstop as Stevens blew up a watermelon and a hard-boiled egg and, for good measure, set fire to a T-shirt with a sparkler, which burned at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit — a lot hotter than boiling water — and quickly engulfed the shirt in flames.
Officials at the press conference said 112 fires were reported in Maryland between 2008-12, and cited statistics by Union Memorial Hospital, which reports 5,000 people went to hospital emergency rooms nationwide in a 30-day period around the Fourth of July last year. Fireworks-related fires and injuries appear to have declined since 2008, although a house fire related to fireworks has already been reported in Annapolis this year, officials said.
Also there was Dr. Ray Wittstadt, a hand surgeon at the Curtis National Hand Center at Union Memorial Hospital, which has seen about 25 cases of fireworks-related hand and finger injuries in the past three years. He said the hand center, the only specifically dedicated hand center of its kind in the region, sees mostly teenage boys, who tried to light firecrackers a second time, thinking they weren't already lit.
In one case, a teenager's thumb was blown off, but was successful reattached, Wittstadt said.
Officials at the new conference offered safety tips to the public when handling fireworks, including:
Purchasing the fireworks in the jurisdiction where you plan to set them off;
Checking with local municipalities to make sure the fireworks are legal there;
Reading and following label warnings and instructions;
Keeping children away from fireworks;
Keeping a bucket of water or hose handy;
Fully extinguishing the remains of fireworks before disposing of them.
Officials also warned against drinking alcoholic beverages while handling fireworks.
But their biggest advice was to avoid using any consumer-grade fireworks, and to enjoy public fireworks displays instead.
"Consumer fireworks are explosives," said William Goddard III, Howard County fire and emergency management services chief and chairman of the Metropolitan Fire Chief's Council.
"Let the professionals do it, while you sit with your family and enjoy the Fourth," said Jacqueline Olsen, president of the Maryland State Fireman's Association.
Baltimore City Fire Chief James Clack said his jurisdiction is on of three in Maryland that prohibits firecrackers of any kind, but that his staff has a "terrible" time trying to catch people violating the law.
"It's hard to enforce," Clack said.
Part of the problem, Barnard acknowledged, is that laws are not uniform around the state, and conflict with laws in surrounding states. Though Baltimore City, Prince George's County and Montgomery County ban all fireworks, state law allows some ground-based sparkling devices and novelty fireworks, Barnard said.
Howard and Harford counties, as well as Ocean City, allow novelty but not ground-based sparkling devices, and Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County follow the state law, Barnard said. Pennsylvania law allows the sales of fireworks, but prohibits setting them off, so many consumers buy fireworks in Pennsylvania and light them in Maryland, he said.
Barnard thinks all consumer-grade fireworks should be banned in Maryland, but that proposed legislation to do that has failed in the state legislature in recent years.
"The lobbying effort from the (fireworks) industry got through," he said.